TORONTO – Watch it again.
It’s worth another 10 seconds of your life.
There’s this wonderfully fast and warmly paternal snippet from Team Sweden’s journey to world championship gold in Cologne this past May.
William Nylander’s off-balance, bar-down, bottle-popping snipe past a hapless German netminder and Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s priceless reaction to his charge’s goal from the bleachers simultaneously encapsulates the sniper’s talent and just how pleased the club that drafted him eighth overall must be with his spiking progress.
Hopping from the right side of one elite centre (Auston Matthews) to another (countryman and childhood idol Nicklas Backstrom), Nylander is having himself one helluva 2017.
Since Jan. 1, the artist formerly known as “Snizzbone” has exploded for 37 points in 47 regular-season games; another four points in his first NHL playoff series, a six-game, six-overtimes epic versus Backstrom’s Capitals; then, as an encore, an MVP performance for the gold-medal-winning Tre Kronor at the worlds, where he exploded for 10 points in six games.
“You got the feeling of how it is to win. That’s lots of fun. I want to do it again,” Nylander said Thursday following an informal team practice at MasterCard Centre. His confidence was boosted by the experience.
“[Backstrom is] one of the best passers in the league. It was amazing to get to play with him. He was one of the players I looked up to growing up. It was surreal.”
Very real is the dance GM Lou Lamoriello and the Maple Leafs brass have already begun with Nylander’s agents at Sports Professional Management.
The 21-year-old is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. The sides could have theoretically agreed to an extension two months ago, but it’s in the player’s best interest not to rush.
“They’ve talked a little bit. We’ll see what happens,” Nylander said. “I’m just focused on the season right now and want to be prepared for when the season starts.”
It’s virtually impossible to discuss Nylander’s contractual future this summer without pointing westward to Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, selected five spots ahead of the Swede at the 2014 draft. The Oilers forward leaped from 51 points in his first full NHL campaign to 77 points as a sophomore, earning a massive eight-year, $68-million extension this summer.
In hindsight, Peter Chiarelli may have wished to haggle that extension about nine months earlier.
As a rookie, Nylander finished sixth in Calder voting and racked up 61 points. With the improvement he flexed in 2016-17’s second half, the dominance he displayed at the worlds, and the possible distraction of a second finisher, Patrick Marleau, on Matthews’ left side, who’s to say 30 goals and 77 points is out of reach for him as a sophomore?
If he stays healthy and dangerous, Nylander’s price tag is only going up, which is partly why Lamoriello did well to keep this summer’s RFA, Connor Brown, at a $2.1-million cap hit.
We asked Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney to name the club’s most deceptive shooter. Nylander’s name was the first to pop out of his mouth.
“Willie’s got a great shot,” McElhinney says. “It’s a combination of stuff: his release, how fast he gets it off, it’s hard, it’s accurate, and it’s not always in the same spot. Some guys have a tendency to shoot in the same spot and you get used to it. He mixes it up.”
Like Draisaitl, Nylander was groomed to play the middle but, in Matthews, has drummed up undeniable chemistry skating on the wing of a generational centreman even younger than him.
Babcock thinks of his forwards more in terms of pairs than trios, and with Nylander-Matthews humming as smoothly as a fidget spinner, the coach has shut down the notion of Nylander shifting to centre this October.
But with Tyler Bozak destined for free agency and a 2018 payday unlikely to jibe with the pending Nylander, Marner and Matthews extensions, it’s possible Nylander’s defensive game improves to the point where he can drive a scoring line of his own. (Once again: Like Draisaitl.)
As with every good young Maple Leaf under the current regime, Nylander steers conversation about his personal life — summer was simply a relaxing time back home in Sweden with friends and family — and his individual aspirations toward the common cause.
The sophomore says he “can improve every aspect” of his game. He learned a ton from simply observing the best this past spring at the worlds and plans to channel that into a Leafs campaign as much fraught with anticipation as hope.
“People didn’t know much about us last year, so this year we have to be ready. Every game they’re gonna be coming for us, so we have to be on our toes,” Nylander said.
“We have expectations of our own. We want to go just as far as the fans do.”